Sunday, March 30, 2014

The McAuliffe Administration, three months in.

Gov. McAuliffe's approval rating is 44%. What does that mean?

McAuliffe saved us from a Cuccinelli administration. For which we should all be eternally grateful. 

When Terry McAuliffe first ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, in 2009, I started off agnostic. There were three candidates: Creigh Deeds (my state senator), Terry McAuliffe, and Brian Moran. I was inclined to support Creigh, as I had gotten to know him and to appreciate his depth of knowledge about Virginia policy and issues, and the way that the General Assembly works (since he's served in both houses). He ran a pretty good campaign for Attorney General in 2005, losing by a very narrow margin (shades of even narrower margins to come, as Virginia demographics change. Though we've certainly had close votes in the past--Tom Michie, who later held the same seat that Creigh holds in the Virginia Senate, became a delegate to the Virignia House in 1971, winning by one vote). However, I was open to supporting whomever I thought would make the best candidate. I met Terry a couple of times and was impressed that he was a good listener. However, at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Richmond in early 2009, I was put off by his over-the-top campaign tactics, and in the end, I supported Creigh. We all know how that went--Creigh is a lovely person, and a great state legislator, but he ran an awful campaign, in a year when the tea party was surging forward in their backlash against Obama. They were energized by their candidates, and our folks were not, by ours. In 2009 and 2010 we lost seats--statewide, in Congress, and locally--to the tea party.

 In 2010, Terry met with local party leaders around the state to get some input on why Democrats did not support his candidacy for governor. Again, I ended up being impressed that he listened to people, and implemented their suggestions when he ran again in 2013. I was an early supporter of Terry in 2013, and I did have some explaning to do to people about my support of Terry to face off against Cuccinelli. One of the things that I really do admire about Terry is that he's not afraid to be forceful with his opinions. And against someone like Cuccinelli, I thought, we need a very forceful person, as the Cooch is certainly not shy about saying what he thinks will resonate with his base (although he is quite good at dissembling when he thinks it will help him with moderates).

But anyway. My point is that Cuccinelli is a fighter, and Terry is too. And fight he did. He ran a terrific campaign and won, saving us from a Cuccinelli administration. For which we should all be eternally grateful, whatever else he does or doesn't do. (As an aside: Cuccinelli seems to have the most pathetic post-political career ever. Maybe serving as dogcatcher would be more pathetic than running a scam on poor people who own gus, but...).

Some Democrats have criticized a couple of Terry's political appointments, and his support of someone to become chair of the state party who has expressed opposition to marriage equality. However, though we can always find points of difference with those of our own party (and so we should), the important thing is that he is trying to do the right thing: from outlawing discrimination that Virginia has previously seemed content to tolerate, to expanding Medicaid to reach those who fall in the coverage gap (mainly, working low-income adults).
Everyone except right-wing Republicans seem to think that expanding Medicaid eligibility would be a great thing for Virginia. Even the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association--not exactly a bunch of wild-eyed liberals--cautiously supports it, and the economic benefits it would bring to the Commonwealth. (For most sensible persons, it seems a no-brainer, especially since Terry has even offered to limit it to a 2-year pilot program. Some legislators have even offered a bi-partisan compromise similar to the FAMIS solution). But no: like the right-wingers in Congress who consistently cut off all our noses to spite the President's face, right-wingers in our General Assembly are also set on blocking the ACA whenever and wherever they can. It's the principle of the thing--and the principle, for them, is not some noble ideal, but to thwart the President (and the ACA) at every turn.  So much for bipartisanship.
So, to finally get around to asking the question: what does Terry's 44% approval rating mean? Despite the blocking of one of his signature issues (one which, one can argue, he has a mandate for, given that it was a main plank of his platform and he won the darn election, for gosh sakes (though to be fair, most people don't understand what it means, and only us political nerds are really jumping up and down about it)) he only has a 29% disapproval rate, and he has 57% of the state feeling optimistic about his term. According to Quinnipiac, "More respondents rated McAuliffe as honest and trustworthy, a strong leader and concerned about their needs than those who did not."

It's rather a shame that a Virginia governor has to jump right into Virginia's short legislative season (it was a "long" session this year--but long in Virginia means 60 days instead of 45). It might make a lot more sense to have session later in the year, so that the Governor and his/her staff have time to build alliances, develop strategies, and build their case. Since a governor has only one term in Virginia, it doesn't allow much time to get the hang of things before jumping right into trying to achieve an agenda. Terry has, in the three months since he was sworn in, managed to impress more Virginians than has the combative House of Delegates. I'd say that's pretty darn good.

Saturday, January 17, 2009
Pastor Strangelove
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fact that Rick Warren is Giving the Inaugural Prayer.

I was talking with a friend today who lives in San Francisco--exchanging New Year's greetings and getting caught up. I mentioned I had just seen Milk; she had seen it in the Castro district. Then we talked about the inauguration--she was thinking about flying back across the country to attend, I'm thinking about whether I want to deal with the crowds and gridlock, or just stay home (I mean, come on, I'm only two hours away! but...) in the course of this conversation, we talked about Obama's decision to have megachurch pastor Rick Warren give the inaugural prayer.

Now, leaving aside the whole question of why we even have a prayer at the swearing-in of the president of a country whose Constitution specifies that religion and government are to be separate, the choice of this particular religious leader in particular to deliver the prayer has become the first major disappointment of Obama's supporters (don't worry, there'll be many more to come--he's only human, after all!)

My friend, living in California (and formerly married to another woman in Denmark), felt the selection of Warren as a sort of one-two punch after the passage of proposition 8. Many of my friends and others whom I respect also are disappointed, hurt and angry (or at least disapproving and disparaging) about this choice. I, too, was incredulous when I first heard the news. But since then, I've given it a lot of thought, and my thinking about it has evolved. I now feel that while I wouldn't have made this particular choice, I understand why Obama has; and while I don't in any way approve of Warren or his views, I think the choice actually makes sense.

First, one thing we forget to consider is that evangelical christians are not a monolithic group. Right-wing fundamentalists and evangelicals are not one and the same. Those of us who are not part of these religious traditions may not realize it, but these are separate groups of religious, who don't necessarily share the same views. There are plenty of conservative and right-wing (note: this is not a redundancy: I don't use conservative and right-wing interchangeably, as I see right-wing as being radical, not conservative) evangelicals, but there is also a growing group of liberal evangelicals,

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all of Warren's followers are so thrilled with the choice either--plenty of conservative and right-wing christians feel that by giving the prayer Warren is endorsing Obama's views on gays and abortion. In fact, the controversy among conservative christians regarding the Warren/Obama relationship goes back a few years.

In our conversation, my friend said that she thought that Obama chose Warren for political reasons, and of course, he did. But this is not as cynical as it sounds. First, Obama is not a left-wing politician: while he ran to the left of Hillary, and a lot of people were caught off-guard when he corrected course after Hillary conceded, no one who has paid attention to his actions in office could think that he was left-wing. Second, Obama was so successful in the primaries because of the way he drew people in. This is partly his cypher-like personality--people see in Obama what they wish to see. But partly it's because of his human and political instincts, which are very finely honed. And those instincts helped enable him to build a Democratic majority in this election--something that we have seemed unable to do since Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove and their ilk pandered to Americans' lowest impulses. Obama's instincts in this instance are true (though I think he's somewhat disingenuous when he explains his reasoning). Finally, Obama surged to the forefront in the election even in traditionally red states because people (including evangelicals) are changing their attitudes on those social wedge issues like gays and abortion. The power of the right-wing to use those issues as boogie men to scare people to the right is waning.

My friend understood my reasoning, when I explained why I was no longer opposed to the Warren choice, but felt that the same thing could have been accomplished by appointing Warren to serve on some council or something. But, that would not have accomplished the same purpose, because it would not be such a public statement.

This election saw a significant gain in evangelicals voting Democratic. That seems surprising to us because we have become used to assuming that they would all vote Republican, and all for the same reasons. But in making such assumptions, we both gave up on evangelicals, and (mis)underestimated their power--and ended up ceding a huge voting bloc to the Republicans. This was really stupid of us, because within the past 30 years, we've had three evangelical christians in the white house--and two of these were Democrats! (and let's not forget Al Gore, who SHOULD have been the third...). So how did we get to the point where we let the Republicans rake in this vote?

First, we lumped all fundamentalist/evangelical/conservative christians into one group. Then, we bought the bill of goods GWB was selling--that he was "conservative" (when in fact, he's not conservative by any measure: not on spending, obviously, and not on politics--he's far right). Then, we bought into the media's characterization of "values voters," when in fact, ALL voters are values voters. Many Democratic values, which include responsibility to all members of society, social justice, the environment, compassion, fairness, adherence to the Constitution, democracy, education, political solutions before military... etc. are shared by evangelicals. But by not defining OURSELVES as values voters, we let Republicans own this term--and evangelicals' votes.

Barack Obama's instincts and understanding of this is what helped him pull in enough people of every political stripe, including evangelicals, who were tired of sleaze, cynicism and expediency. Lincoln's famous quote about fooling all of the people some of the time is true--the people got tired of being fooled (and we won't be fooled again!) and were ready for some REAL values, not cynical pandering to values not shared by those doing the pandering. I think Obama is trying to a) cement this relationship between Democrats and evangelicals and b) show that we're not just pandering to get their vote and then dropping them like a hot potato. Democrats have done this before with African-American voters, and this has been another reason for our failures since 2000--we counted on a constuency that we'd not done enough for to deserve to keep.

Yes, by giving this honor to Warren, Obama is spending political capital. And I suppose it does seem hubristic to do so. But, unlike Bush, who spent all his capital, Obama is investing it. (Which is what one ought to do with capital, no?). Whether he's investing wisely, only time will tell.

UPDATE: Obama will now have Gene Robinson, gay episcopalian bishop, also give a prayer at the inauguration. Perhaps he should have announced both choices at the same time, so it would not appear that he's now pandering to gays and the left? Well, nobody asked for my advice.

Saturday, December 13, 2008
The Auto Bailout:
PART I: What does it all mean? And how much does it all cost?

Years ago, I dated a guy who was a republican with an MBA from Darden. At that time, venerable department stores in downtown Richmond were shutting their doors, and there was a lot of outcry--the stores evoked memories of people's childhoods: the excitement of big department stores, with their escalators, elevator operators, salespersons and atmosphere of luxury. It's a very specific nostalgic feeling that you just can't get at Kmart or Walmart (or even most department stores in malls today)--a sort of multi-sensual experience. But at some point, people began to prefer the bargain experience to the luxury experience--and the big downtown department stores began to fail, to be replaced by malls. To an MBA and free-market radical who believed in Reaganomics, this was a natural evolution of the market; and so, he couldn't understand why the people who abandoned department stores for Walmart were complaining. He didn't understand the nostalgia: people could buy what they wanted at a discount store, for less. Who cares about the shopping experience? Move on.

I understood the people who mourned the loss of Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads. Markets are not just numbers on paper and the resulting profit/loss. They are comprised of human behaviors, and are woven into and from people's lives. We tend to forget that, when we talk about the economy--we think of the loss of a company in terms of the loss of jobs, but not in terms of the loss to those who have made the decision to buy a company's products and services. But, buying behaviors are very complex. They are simultaneously personal to an individual, and indicative of a society at a given point in time. Our buying/consuming decisions may seem to us to be intelligently and intentionally made, and yet may really be more emotionally-based and unconscious than rational. And when that is the case, people may feel an attachment to a product that goes beyond any rational reason. Remember the old coke/new coke kerfluffle? Know anyone who will argue passionately about Macs versus PCs? [after all, aside from the fact that Macs are clearly superior, it's just a question of what your individual needs are in a computer, right?]

Car-purchasing decisions, almost more than any other consumer behavior, are emotionally driven. People in this country, especially, spend so much time in their cars that they view them as an extension of their selves--an aspect of their identity. They personify their cars, giving them names, ascribing emotions to them. American-made cars have long been a part of Americans' identity. People identify not only with individual models of cars, but with whole automobile companies, declaring themselves to be "chevy men" or "ford men." Songs, movies and books have been written in which an American car is the main protagonist. Cars are also closely identified with American adolescence, because they allowed teens a degree of independence and differentiation from parents that was never possible before the introduction of the automobile. This was due in part because of America's mid-twentieth century affluence, which afforded teens the ability to purchase their own cars (and later, for parents to buy cars just for their children). In the wake of the gas shortages of the 1970's, some consumers began purchasing smaller, more fuel-efficient foreign cars. Others became even more loyal to American cars, viewing their purchase as an indication of national identity. Many persist in viewing an American-car purchase as an act of patriotism, despite the fact that many "foreign" cars are made here, while American cars may be made wholly of parts manufactured in other countries--or even assembled in another country.

This is the context in which the current automobile crisis is playing out. Our identification and our nostalgia are part of what makes it difficult to decide what to do about the American auto-making industry--not just the effects on the economy. Can we really just let such a large part of the American psyche pass into oblivion? Relegate the mustang, the T-bird, the little red corvette, the pink cadillac, to the history museum? Well, really, like the downtown department stores, we already have. Those cars belong to a halcyon past that we celebrate in story and song, but we don't drive them anymore. We drive SUVs, hybrids, minivans. We still choose cars based on emotion and identity, but now our identity may be "green consumer" or "macho man with big [truck]." Do we really need the American auto industry when we can buy a Toyota prius or a Nissan armada?

I'm not any more of a free-market radical now than I was then. But the auto industry is a mess. It's a weird patchwork of protectionism, greed, union demands and compromises, and obsolete assumptions. It's an industry in which a CEO who makes millions of dollars to steer a company that depends on the market can't understand why it might not be a great marketing decision to fly a private jet to Washington when asking for billions in public funds to shore up a failing industry. Can a bloated industry of redundancies and irrelevancies be saved, or does it need the cleansing fire of bankruptcy? Would reorganization under bankruptcy be the end of the industry, or would it force it to become a healthy, relevant, competitive industry? Or, would the foreign automakers who are making cars in the US pick up the slack--both in terms of car sales and jobs--with the population of Detroit moving to Alabama and Mississippi? Might be a good thing for those impoverished states.

WaPo car columnist Warren Brown suggests that the motivation of those who think the American auto industry should not be bailed out is class bias. While our society is chock-full of unconscious/unspoken/covert class bias, and that it plays into the thinking of many people, I think this premise is flawed. For one thing, the whole article is focused on people who are critical of the UAW, not on the criticism of the auto industry, and the executives that got us here.

In fact, the UAW probably has very little to do with the current problems in the industry. Most are the automakers' doing. For instance, consider the "jobs bank." Even UAW workers have a problem with that program, which (depending on who you listen to) was either started as a way to get workers to accept automation, or so that there would always be skilled workers on call when needed. And, what does the job bank really cost? Regardless of cost, though, as an example of how stupid the industry is, the jobs bank can't be beat: paying people to sit on their asses? Why not pay these idle workers to actually do something? For instance, they could, but apparently don't, call them in during peak production (instead paying overtime to regular workers). Or, banked workers could have been volunteering in local schools, coaching youth sports, beautifying detroit, feeding the homeless, getting education/training for new jobs... anything. It's demoralizing to do nothing all day, so it's hardly something people would want, given the choice. Detroit could have dealt with redundancy in a more productive way that would have lead to fewer paid nonworkers.

It is true that non-union Japanese car makers don't pay their workers as much as Detroit does, and they don't have to carry so many retirees. But is this the main reason why Detroit is suffering? First of all, workers don't make all that much: Brown cites $71,000 in combined wages and benefits. The automakers cry that their huge pool of retirees (and the health benefits they pay for them) acts as a drag on Detroit. But lets look a little more closely: Detroit's CEOs function as at least as much of a drag on the industry as the union employees. Consider that Detroit CEOs rake in, not just somewhat more than Japanese auto CEOs, but many multiples more in salaries and bonuses. We're talkin' US CEOs making an average salary of $12 million to Japanese CEOs' $1.3 mil average. But salaries are the least of it. Ford's CEO, Alan Mulally, makes over $20m in salary and compensation. Other executives makes less than the CEO, but there are lots of 'em: I haven't been able to find out how much salary these guys make, but in 2008, Chrysler paid "retention bonuses" to its 50 executives totalling $30m, with the top six execs getting between $1 and $2m each. That doesn't include what they get in salary. Ford's next four top execs' compensation ranged in 2007 from $2 to $8m each. The workers make an average of $71,000 in wages and benefits (or about $34/hour) according to Brown (which comes out to considerably less than the $70/hour being bandied about)--more like $34 per hour. The retirees cost US automakers $12 billion a year total. It takes approximately 30 hours to build a car (if you're Toyota--if you're Detroit, add a couple of hours). Thirty hours to make a car times $34/hour is about $1,000 in labor costs per car.

What does this add up to? Well, each of the big three expects to sell between 11 and 12 million cars next year. That's about 34 million cars. $12 billion in retiree costs divided by 34 million cars is about $250 per car.

NEXT: PART II: Whether and Whither?

Sunday, November 16, 2008
Bush's Fire Sale: selling out America, piece by piece.

I know that every outgoing president rushes to utilize the last remaining shreds of power to achieve some agenda, such as ramming through regulatory policy changes. Clinton, for instance, pardoned 140 people on his last day in office, most notoriously Marc Rich, a disgraced commodities trader whose wife had made generous donations.

But Bush has (once again) gone beyond the pale: the New York Times has termed Bush's last-minute policy changes a "wrecking ball." Now, you might think that a president who has squandered all the "political capital" he thought he'd garnered through his reelection four years ago (and leaving aside whether he knew what the term actually means), would not be so bold as to further besmirch his reputation by selling off national resources to the highest bidder. But, of course, you'd have to think again--because as low as George W. Bush goes, he can always go lower.

In his final weeks, Bush is making it easier for mining companies to dump toxic waste into streams; for the FBI to spy on citizens without any evidence of wrongdoing; and for big banks (you know, the ones we just bailed out to the tune of $700 billion) to get tax breaks on bad loan losses. At the same time, he's making it harder for women to get abortions and emergency contraception.

Bush is also putting up for sale oil leases on public lands in Utah that are located near national parks. The proposed sales were not even announced to the National Park Service, which in the past has always had the opportunity to review and comment on such sales--the NPS had to learn about it through an environmental group. The BLM at first rejected the NPS's request to first study the impact on air, water, and wildlife before selling leases near the parks. Finally they agreed to allow them to do a review of those tracts--but that has to be done by Nov. 24. Lots of time!

And, as if that weren't enough, Bush is also moving forward to allow oil companies to begin drilling off the Virginia coast--and disingenuously claiming it was Gov. Kaine's idea. But Kaine didn't call for resource exploitation, he wanted the rules loosened so the potential for natural gas drilling could be studied. Bush's actions go far beyond that.

We all know that Bush wants to help out his oil industry buddies--isn't that what he went to Washington to do in the first place? --but the total lack of shame is somehow still shocking. I guess when you've already sold your soul there's nothing you won't do. Oh well. Just one of those presidencies, I reckon.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Post-Election Day Thoughts...

well, I haven't finished processing this yet, and am too tired to really even think about it. Still a little punchy, and stressing about the close Perriello/Goode race that is stuck awaiting canvass/provisional ballot results. Aargh! But, impressions: people standing in the rain, sometimes for hours... the gentleman in Lunenburg who gave me his Obama lyrics to 'people get ready'... the concern for my safety of the sheriff's deputy when he learned I was going to monitor the election in Appomattox... the little boy who asked if I was going to vote for "Arak Obama" and told me that he was too... the really hopeful and excited way in which everyone I met with in southside Virginia, from Appomattox to Mecklenburg, spoke about the election. The tears streaming down people's faces, including my own. Sappy, I know--and it started early in the day, just seeing big-D Democracy in action, feeling a restoration of my faith in the process, and in the people of this country. I called my mom from somewhere in Mecklenburg or Charlotte and told her I thought it was really going to happen in Virginia. And it did. We did it.

Monday, November 03, 2008
Pre-election day random thoughts:

1) The Virginia State Board of Elections. So, suddenly, for the first time, the SBE is interpreting the rule that prohibits electioneering inside the 40' perimeter to mean that voters can't wear buttons or Tshirts with their candidates' names on them? Election officials are being told to have jackets and trashbags on hand for those who come to the polls wearing tshirts that need to be covered up in order to comply with the rule. Well, that's a wonderful thing to task election officials with on a day when the polls are going to be jammed! And, what about that little thing called the First Amendment? Uh, doesn't it kinda trump state election laws? I've been told that election officials, if they choose, can eject voters refusing to remove their flair without allowing them to vote, and even arrest them (tho at least several jurisdictions are saying they will allow them to vote but take down their names). Several organizations say they will take this ruling to court, after the election. But you know, all it really would take, it seems to me, is a few courageous folk who insist on being able to vote without covering up, and are willing to be charged (uh, please, vote first, then open your jacket to reveal...). Will the law be enforced? Martinsville and Henry county prosecutors say they won't enforce this law by charging anyone; our local prosecutors say they will. But that's great--maybe they're doing it intentionally so someone will be charged and challenge the Constitutionality?

2) Democrats=Democracy. Hey, we're Democrats, people. Although, yes, that means some disorganization that can be frustrating, it doesn't mean hierarchical, top-down bullshit. Though I've heard a few people, frustrated with the Dems' lack of electoral success in the past few elections, express that what we need is our own Karl Rove, we really don't. (I must confess that even I voiced this thought a few years ago, but no--we must learn to win on our own terms, not by borrowing from our enemies' Machiavellian playbooks--after all, Machiavelli was a republican (well, but, to be fair, with a small r).

3) The poll numbers, or, will we win? Everyone keeps asking me this. Do I think we'll really win? Is it really possible? Could the polls be right? It's kind of heart-rending, the desperation behind the questions. I understand the fear, and the desperation, the pain of previously dashed hopes. Hey, I cried my eyes out for hours in 2004. It shows how damaging to our psyches the 2000 election debacle was, as well the subsequent 2004 loss (in the movies, the underdog always wins after the first defeat... what happened?). Well, we'll know for sure on Tuesday (I hope! please no Floridas or Ohios!). But, here are some thoughts about the accuracy of the polls--first, the massive numbers of newly-registered voters. Here in Virginia, at least, these are not just 18-yr-olds, or people newly moved in. These are people who have never bothered to register before. Polls don't count these people, because they have no voting history, thus they are not "likely voters" based on statistical probability. But, who are they? Many are those who have felt disenfranchised by the political process, so much so that they've never bothered to vote before, like this Albemarle county voter.

At this point, I'm afraid to be too excited about Virginia's chances... but I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm excited to be casting a vote in a presidential election in which, for the first time in my life, that vote will actually count. I think my faith in the American people is about to be vindicated... and that I'll be crying tears of joy this time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008
Laurence Eagleburger Cross-Posting

I updated my post about Laurence Eagleburger to reflect recent developments in the McCain campaign in my new blog at Open Salon here. You can view the original post from back in July here.

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